A Brief History of the Lunch Box

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The end of summer brings many things: cooler weather, school buses in the streets, and, apparently, the remembrance of cast-off technologies. See, for example, my colleague Rebecca Greenfield's "The Rise and Fall of the (Sexy, Icky, Practical) Waterbed." But instead of considering alluringly aquatic vinyl mattresses, Smithsonian.com recently turned its attention to a timely back-to-school product—the lunch box. In an article posted today, Lisa Bramen outlines the history and demise of a cafeteria icon:

Sadly, the metal lunch box has mostly gone the way of the overhead projector. Today's kids often tote their lunches in soft insulated polyester versions that fit easily into backpacks, just the latest development in the long and distinguished history of midday-meal transporting devices.

The seemingly inactive Whole Pop Magazine Online has an illustrated history of the lunch box--cutely named Paileontology--that traces the origins to the 19th century. (Smithsonian's American History Museum has quite a collection.) Back then working men protected their lunches from the perils of the job site (just imagine what a coal mine or a quarry could do to a guy's sandwich) with heavy-duty metal pails. Around the 1880s, school children who wanted to emulate their daddies fashioned similar caddies out of empty cookie or tobacco tins. According to the timeline, the first commercial lunch boxes, which resembled metal picnic baskets decorated with scenes of playing children, came out in 1902.

Mickey Mouse was the first popular character to grace the front of a lunch box, in 1935. But the lunch box as personal statement really took off in the 1950s, along with television. According to Whole Pop, executives at a Nashville company called Aladdin realized they could sell more of their relatively indestructible lunch boxes if they decorated them with the fleeting icons of popular culture; even if that Hopalong Cassidy lunch box was barely scratched, the kid whose newest fancy was the Lone Ranger would want to trade in his pail for the latest model.

Read the full story at Smithsonian.com.

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Daniel Fromson, a former associate editor at The Atlantic, is a writer based in Washington, D.C. He writes regularly for The Washington Post. His work has also appeared in Harper's Magazine, New York, and Slate.

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